While actors frequently find themselves playing soldiers on screen, it’s rare that they actually have real-life experience upon which to draw. However, this isn’t always the case: some stars actually spent time serving their country prior to starting their showbiz careers. In particular, these iconic actors all earned their stripes in the military before making it big in Hollywood – and some of them may surprise you…
40. Humphrey Bogart
One of Hollywood’s most groundbreaking actors, Humphrey Bogart was bucking tradition way before he broke into the movie business. After throwing his chance of an Ivy League education, the actor joined the U.S. Navy and served in the Atlantic in World War I’s final year. As legend has it, Bogart even received his famous lip scarring during an attack on his ship.
39. Kirk Douglas
Born to Jewish parents, Kirk Douglas was appalled by the actions of Nazi Germany in World War II. So much so, in fact, that he postponed a burgeoning theater career in order to fight against Hitler’s forces. Nevertheless, the icon didn’t get his wish; after enlisting in the Navy, he was sent to fight Japan in the Pacific instead.
38. James Earl Jones
We all know James Earl Jones for his distinctive voice and screen presence. However, there was a time when the actor almost gave up on his dreams to pursue a military career. Having been drafted to serve his country in the Korean War, Jones considered staying in the Army for its financial security. Luckily, a superior made him realize the military life wasn’t for him.
37. Harry Belafonte
A musician, movie star and civil rights activist, Harry Belafonte can thank the military for helping to develop his diverse career. Following time spent in the U.S. Navy during World War II, the entertainer was afforded a chance at a higher education due to the G.I. Bill. Soon after, Belafonte enrolled at university in New York, a move that arguably set him on the path to stardom.
36. Clint Eastwood
For an actor as tough as Clint Eastwood, a military record is almost a given. But while the star did serve while the Korean War raged, he never saw combat. Instead, he spent the whole conflict as a lifeguard at an Army boot camp. Still, Eastwood came close to death after a Navy airplane in which he was hitching a ride crashed near the San Francisco coast.
35. Bob Ross
If we told you that Bob Ross was once a fearsome drill sergeant, you wouldn’t believe us, right? Bizarrely, the painter – famous for his calm and kindly demeanor – had such a mean streak during his 20-year stint in the U.S. Air Force that he acquired the nickname “Bust-‘em-up Bobby.” Nevertheless, the constant toughness took its toll and Ross switched buffaloing for brushstrokes upon his 1981 retirement from service.
34. Buster Keaton
Prior to becoming a Hollywood legend, deadpan star Buster Keaton had a thoroughly miserable time in the Army. Serving in World War I, the star – as he divulged in his 1960 autobiography – spent the conflict feeling “ridiculous” thanks to an ill-fitting uniform. “Apparently, the quartermaster general had never anticipated that anyone under 5’5” tall would be allowed to join the United States Army,” he fumed.
33. Gal Gadot
As is customary in her native Israel, Gal Gadot was required to spend two years doing National Service in the Israeli Defense Force. During this time, the actress trained fellow recruits and fought in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. Importantly, this experience set Gadot up for her career in Hollywood and the rigorous training regimes required for films such as Wonder Woman.
32. Don Rickles
Hailed as the “King of insult comedy,” Don Rickles made his fame throwing barbs at the rich and famous. We don’t know how well his caustic gags would have gone down with his fellow sailors, however, when he served on a torpedo boat in World War II. Enlisting after high school, Rickles remained in the Navy until 1946.
31. Charles Bronson
As mean in real life as he was in the movies, Charles Bronson had the military decorations to back up his macho persona. During World War II, the Death Wish star flew 25 missions as the gunner in a B-29 bomber. On one mission, Bronson was wounded; as a result the surly actor later received a Purple Heart.
30. Jimi Hendrix
As a guitarist, Jimi Hendrix remains unparalleled. But as a soldier, this pioneering musician really fell below the mark. Enlisting in the Army to avoid a jail sentence in 1961, Hendrix proved to be unskilled, disorganized and more inclined to playing guitar over performing his actual duties. When the musician suffered an ankle injury 13 months into his service, his superiors had no problem discharging him.
29. Roger Moore
Despite gaining fame as the gun-toting James Bond, in truth Roger Moore always despised firearms. Luckily, the actor rarely had a rifle in his hand during his mandatory National Service in the mid-1940s. In fact, the thespian – who was stationed in the Combined Services Entertainment wing of the British Army – spent some of his time acting in radio plays which were broadcast to his fellow troops.
28. Drew Carey
Although Drew Carey may seem like a mild-mannered comedian, he actually has a long history in the military. In 1980 The Price Is Right TV host signed up to the Marine Corps Reserves, in which he served until 1986. But while his army days are indeed behind him, the star’s trademark crew-cut remains a reminder of his time in the service.
27. Johnny Carson
A universally beloved performer, Johnny Carson gained the confidence to enter showbiz after entertaining the U.S. Navy’s top brass. While stationed in Guam in the aftermath of World War II, the host met Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal and promptly showed him some card tricks. According to biographer Paul Corkery, the stoic superior’s bemused reaction convinced Carson that he could put a smile on anyone’s face.
26. Johnny Cash
Before becoming a country music icon, Johnny Cash was a talented U.S. Air Force Morse Code operator. And this led to him becoming strangely involved in a pivotal moment of world history. Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Cash – then stationed in West Germany – intercepted and decoded the communiqué announcing the news. Consequently, he became the first American to learn of the Soviet dictator’s passing.
25. Bob Barker
Like many men his age, Bob Barker enlisted in the military – specifically the Naval Reserves – during World War II. And though The Price Is Right legend trained as a fighter pilot for 18 months, the conflict ended before he could be deployed. “When the enemy heard I was headed for the Pacific, they surrendered,” Barker joked in his 2009 autobiography.
24. Pat Sajak
Made famous by 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam, AVFN was an important fixture of G.I.s’ lives during this Southeast Asian conflict. And Pat Sajak – who served as a DJ in Vietnam prior to his Wheel Of Fortune fame – was one of the radio station’s regular voices. “My time in the military… [is] among those things in my life of which I’m most proud,” he wrote in an article for armed forces entertainment charity USO in 2014.
23. Steve McQueen
The word “rebellious” seems as though it was made specifically for iconic actor Steve McQueen. And true to his on-screen persona, the “King of Cool” was a rule-breaker in real life. While serving in the Marines in the late 1940s, McQueen spent time in the brig for a two-week desertion of duty. His reason for being AWOL? He had been visiting his girlfriend, of course.
22. Kris Kristofferson
Born into a family with a tradition of military service, Kris Kristofferson naturally followed his forebears and enlisted in the Army in the 1960s. But despite his history as a Ranger, the singer has no love of warfare or those in charge of it. “I identify with [the troops],” the singer reportedly said. “But I sure as hell don’t identify with the b******* who sent them over there.”
21. Arnold Schwarzenegger
It goes without saying that Arnold Schwarzenegger takes bodybuilding very seriously. So much so, in fact, that he even served time in a military jail because of it. During his National Service with the Austrian Army in 1965, Schwarzenegger snuck out into neighboring Germany one night to compete in a bodybuilding competition. Upon his return, he was rewarded with three days in the brig.
20. James Stewart
Following the United States’ entry into World War II, Jimmy Stewart went to great lengths to serve his country. To this end, the future Vertigo star bulked up to meet the military’s weight requirements; he eventually flew 20 risky combat missions during his time in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later the U.S. Army Air Forces).
19. Christopher Lee
Few soldiers can admit to experiencing war in the same way as Christopher Lee, nor to having seen things that made the terror of the horror icon’s many movies look virtually benign. During World War II, the late actor served in the British Army’s Special Air Service and performed covert operations in enemy territory. Lee almost died twice during these missions which – as he would admit to The Telegraph in 2011 – left him with “enough horror to last [him] a lifetime.”
18. Leonard Nimoy
Before he became immortalized as Star Trek’s pacifistic Spock, Leonard Nimoy spent a year and a half as a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve. And the future star was quite the overachiever while in service: not only did he rise through the ranks to become technician third grade, but he also used his time in the military to hone his theater skills by regularly writing and performing stage shows.
17. James Doohan
Like his Star Trek co-star Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan – a.k.a. Scotty – also had a military past before finding fame. In fact, after the one-time actor joined the Royal Canadian Artillery during World War II, he participated in a D-Day mission, during which he was shot six times. Strangely, though, it was a trigger-happy comrade and not the enemy who fired the offending rounds at the lieutenant.
16. Rob Riggle
He may star in hit comedies like 21 Jump Street today, but Rob Riggle hasn’t always been cracking wise on screen. A sense of humor, however, may have served him well as a member of the U.S. Marine Corps: Riggle saw combat in Afghanistan, Liberia and Kosovo during the near-decade that he spent on active duty. He officially retired from the Marines in 2013.
15. Morgan Freeman
Influenced by the war films of his youth, in 1955 Morgan Freeman enlisted in the USAF, where he trained as a fighter pilot. However, the Dark Knight star quickly tired of the role and quit in 1959. “It took me a year and a half to get disabused of my romantic notions about it,” Freeman would go on to explain to Interview magazine in 1996.
14. Paul Newman
Known for his bad boy attitude and piercing blue eyes, Paul Newman was one of Hollywood’s most famed actors. Prior to his legendary screen career, though, the Butch Cassidy star served as a gunner in the U.S. Navy throughout World War II. And, for his service, Newman earned decorations including the prestigious Combat Action Ribbon.
13. Harvey Keitel
Though he’s played his fair share of maverick characters on screen, Harvey Keitel actually started his career in the disciplined world of the U.S. Marine Corps. The Reservoir Dogs star enlisted shortly after graduating high school and saw active service in Lebanon – an experience that would go on to shape his personal philosophy on taking risks in life.
12. Gene Hackman
Some people fit perfectly into the throes of military life; not Gene Hackman, however, who by his own account was a terrible U.S. Marine. Only 16 at the time of his enlistment, the French Connection star – who served from 1947 to 1951 – often abandoned his post and was demoted three times as a result.
11. Mel Brooks
Mel Brooks is well known for satirizing Adolf Hitler in comedies like The Producers, but before finding fame he was fighting the Nazis for real. As a combatant in the U.S. Army, Brooks served as an engineer in the Battle of the Bulge and reportedly countered the Nazi propaganda that was blasted out throughout Germany by playing Jewish entertainer Al Jolson through his own handmade set of speakers.
10. Chuck Norris
Undoubtedly one of the most badass film stars on the planet, Chuck Norris is utterly deserving of his fearsome reputation. That’s not only because the star has several fighting titles to his name, but because he also served in the USAF between 1958 and 1962. During this time, Norris became acquainted with the Korean martial arts that would help make him a star.
9. Charlton Heston
Like many of his Hollywood contemporaries, Charlton Heston enlisted in the military during World War II and would become an aerial gunner and radio operator in the U.S. Air Force. However, the Planet of the Apes star’s military service goes way beyond this conflict. In fact, Heston held the United States’ highest level of military clearance after narrating confidential films on nuclear safety.
8. Tom Selleck
Tom Selleck became well known in the ’80s thanks to Magnum P.I, but the mustachioed actor could have found fame sooner if it hadn’t have been for the Vietnam War. Upon the conflict’s outbreak in 1967, moreover, the California National Guard drafted Selleck – which led to Twentieth Century Fox canceling a lucrative contract that could have seen the future star break through earlier than he did.
7. Clark Gable
Although Clark Gable was 40 years old when the U.S. entered World War II, the star nevertheless requested to be put in active combat. And despite a strongly worded telegram from Franklin D. Roosevelt urging the Gone with the Wind actor to “stay where you are,” Gable was eventually granted his wish and acted as an observer-gunner in the U.S. Air Force.
6. Adam Driver
Before he was following the orders of the evil empire in Star Wars, Adam Driver was serving a more noble cause. Following the September 11 attacks, the Kylo Ren actor trained as a mortar operator with the U.S. Marines. Unfortunately, however, a broken sternum led to Driver’s discharge just days before he was due to leave for his first tour of duty.
5. Sean Connery
Just like his famous on-screen alter ego James Bond, Sean Connery spent time in the service of Queen and country. In 1946, a 16-year-old Connery committed himself to a seven-year stint with the Royal Navy, although a bout of stomach ulcers led to his dismissal when he was just three years in to his contract.
4. Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness is best known nowadays for his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, but he was already a respected stage actor when World War II broke out. Henceforth, in 1941 the star joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, where he courageously headed up an assault vessel in the invasions of Normandy, Sicily and Elbe.
3. Michael Caine
After being called up for national service at the age of 18, Michael Caine joined the U.K.’s Royal Fusiliers and went on to serve in the Korean War. And, years later, the star would reveal that he actually almost lost his life in the conflict after his patrol was discovered by Chinese forces. Luckily, the group managed to outwit their opponents and escaped unharmed.
2. Gene Kelly
In a similar way to fellow Hollywood star Clark Gable, Gene Kelly was dissuaded from entering World War II largely due to his popular public appeal. The Singin’ in the Rain star eventually made it into the U.S. Navy, though, where he reached the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. However, the conflict ended before he ever saw combat.
1. Bea Arthur
Bea Arthur had a knack for playing strong-willed characters on-screen – a trait that she had in real life, too. Indeed, the Golden Girls star was one of the first women to sign up to the U.S. Marine Corps’ Women Reserves during World War II. And fittingly, Arthur’s service evaluation described her as “argumentative” and “over-aggressive.”